Last semester, one of my professors assigned a chapter of anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past as a jumping off point for considering how silences can work their way into the historical narrative. During our weekly Zoom-based class, conversation homed in on the ‘four crucial moments’ in which Trouillot believed that silences could be generated: the making of sources; the making of archives; the making of narratives; and – in the final instance – the making of history.
As the class discussed the second and third moments, in which Trouillot described how archives and their organisation can – knowingly or unknowingly – generate silences, I began to think about the role of digitisation and if the process of taking archives online could constitute a fifth ‘crucial moment’ to be considered by public historians in the digital age.
Archives and the Production of History
Thinking about digitisation through Trouillot’s lens requires a closer look at his second and third moments in which ‘fact’ is ‘assembled’ and ‘retrieved’ within the confines of the archive. For both professional and amateur historians alike, the organisation and accessibility of the archive constitutes a sort of sieve through which research and the eventual construction of historical narratives must pass. Records that are poorly organised or not easily discovered may be sifted away during these moments. Through these crucial moments, archivists control the flow of information from their collections to the researcher and thus impact the creation of history.
Silencing the Past was published in 1995 – at the beginning of the information age – yet it is doubtful that Trouillot or his contemporaries could have imagined just how the internet would transform our world and the practice of history. Historians have long served as the gatekeepers to historical information, yet the digital world has found ways to de-elevate historians from this role and democratise the creation of historical narratives.
Today, anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection can summon vast stockpiles of historical information from servers around the world. Historical research, traditionally conducted in archives and libraries, has shifted into the digital world and anyone with a rudimentary understanding of technology can access information quickly and easily.
While this would seem – at first glance – a win for historians, it comes with a kicker: almost anyone can publish almost anything online. At a time in which the public begins to view digital sources more warily, archives have an opportunity to continue to guide the ‘process of historical production’ by ensuring that high volumes of primary source information are made available to the public in an easily accessible format.
Covid-19 and ‘Fake News’: Today’s Ramifications for Digitisation
The world we live in today has brought new urgency to the consideration of a fifth crucial moment. The global pandemic, which is barreling into its second year, has caused many archives, museums, and libraries around the world to close their doors. When the initial shock of the moment had passed, and historians returned to work online, digital records became the only sources available for use. The need for digital archives should be increasingly apparent to historians who could face extended periods of quarantine in the future.
Beyond the need for archival information in the historical community, 2020 also demonstrated just how dangerous digital misinformation can be – and the destruction that can be wrought by a small number of individuals who perpetuate falsehoods online. The fallout from the USA presidential election, for example, included the storming of the Capitol by a mob driven largely by conspiracy theories. While combatting misinformation in real-time is not the duty of historians, this situation does illustrate the problems that could be faced if alternative or revisionist histories become prominent resources from which the public gets their ‘information’ on the past. By putting an emphasis on the digitisation of archival records, historians will be able to place trusted sources at the head of search queues and possibly stem the tide of historical misinformation.
The Fifth Moment: how digitisation of the archive can shape the narrative
In many ways, the fifth moment that I propose does not fit in with the mechanics of Trouillot’s other moments. For Trouillot, his crucial moments generally represented places that historians actively created silences in the narrative through their actions. In the fifth moment, rather, it is the inactivity or passivity of historians that generates a historical silence.
This shift is due to the changing nature of research, which has been spurred by a public that unearths material in an increasingly independent fashion. While historians used to serve as the gatekeepers to nearly all historical knowledge, they now only guard a portion of the information available to the public. Realising this, historians are saddled with the dual responsibility of digitising and promoting the materials that they guard—as the general public will likely not take the time to do more in-depth and technical research. To return this to the theme of silences, a lack of easily available digital sources excludes the information within them from the eye of the public and generates a mighty historical silence that deserves serious consideration.
Aaron Shuman served in the United States Air Force for six years before beginning the MA program in public history at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock. He has worked as an intern at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site and MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History. Today, he is a Graduate Assistant at the Clinton Presidential Library.
 Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), p.26.
Banner image and Figure 1. Unknown photographer, Michel-Rolph Trouillot (1949-2012). Believed to be be in the public domain, and available via the University of Chicago.
Figure 2. Tyler Merbler, ‘2021 Storming of the US Capitol’. Creative Commons License.